WHEN TOM Lynch’s father Michael passed away he was faced with a stark choice: sell the business or retrain as a wine maker.
“I was the only one in the family in the position to take it on,” says Tom. “I was working as an EU policy analyst for a think tank and so it was quite a career change. But as a business it was very attractive and interesting, and there was also the challenge of working for myself. And it was a really nice idea to continue what my father had started.”
Michael Lynch established a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina in 2005 after falling in love with the region while on holiday.
A former commandant with the Irish Army, Michael had spent the previous eight years running a hotel in Rathgar, Dublin, where he developed an interest in running the bar and sourcing wine. “He bought a greenfield site and employed a winemaker, although he had a lot of input into the style and taste of the wine,” says Tom. “It was a bit of a shot in the dark but Dad always did everything with a large degree of ambition.”
In 2008, just as the winery was gearing up to produce its first vintage under the El Comandante label, Michael fell ill and passed away, leaving his family with a nascent winery and the question of what to do next. “I tried to run the business part-time at first but that just wasn’t feasible,” says Tom. “I needed to go in full-time and have some formal training.”
Tom gave up his policy job and threw himself into learning about wine. He travelled to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to visit established wineries, before spending time at the operation in Mendoza.
“Initially I genuinely didn’t have a clue how wine was made. It gave me the opportunity to visit wineries of different sizes and find out the different options open to me.”
On his return to Ireland, he completed his WSET (Wine Spirit Education Trust) courses to consolidate his training.
“Until then, my learning was haphazard and I’d focused on new world wines. The courses gave me an understanding of old world wines as well.”
However, the market had changed significantly since his father first set up the company. “I started just after the bubble had burst and it’s a hugely competitive market at the moment,” says Tom.
“The independent off-licence is struggling and there have been a fair few closures. People aren’t spending money now on wine.”
Despite these challenges, the business is growing. In 2011, after a three-year hiatus in production, the winery’s second vintage, and Tom’s first, arrived in Ireland.
“At the moment we have one red wine and one white wine. The red is a Malbec, which is the signature grape of Argentinian wine, and the white is an unoaked Chardonnay. They’re both tailored for the Irish palate.”
Production has already doubled to 15,000 bottles in 2012 and the aim is to further expand both the scale of production and the range of wine in coming years. Within Ireland, strategy is focused on increasing the number of stockists and raising brand awareness through tastings and events.
Work has already begun on a reserve range that will arrive in Ireland in 2013. Although introducing a wine at a higher price point will be a tough sell in the current market, but Tom thinks it’s an important move.
“It’s only a small percentage of our stock – around 10 per cent – but I want to have a premium product; a flagship product. I’m not interested in making cheap, low-quality wine.”
Marketing the El Comandante brand as high-quality has been made easier thanks to both the 2009 Malbec and the 2010 Chardonnay receiving Bronze Awards at the London Wine Fair in 2011.
“I entered the wines for the International Wine Challenge to get independent credibility. To win bronze awards first time out; I was hugely happy to get that accolade.”
Tom continues to employ the same winemaker his father did in Mendoza and has chosen to head up the import and distribution into Ireland himself – a huge range of tasks for a relative newcomer to the industry.
“When I started off I didn’t know what cog in the machine I wanted to be so I decided to try them all. In winery terms, we’re very small but we have the capacity to increase. I’m a wine producer and a sales rep for that wine but the point will come when it’s not possible to do it all myself.”
29/6/2012- Ref. Irish Times.Com